Sunday, April 24, 2016

Audient Auscars Concluded: The Last Emperor

Hey everyone. Welcome to the final installment of the series I started at the beginning of 2015.

I have now done something that always seemed like a distant goal on the horizon. I have now seen every best picture winner, all 89 of 'em.

The final entry, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, was a fitting way to conclude in any number of ways. Not only does it have the word "last" in the title, but it was also the last best picture winner before the beginning of my own personal "modern era" as a cinephile.

Before 1987 I think I already considered myself a budding movie fan. I think even at that time, I tried to see a few movies that weren't just the most obvious things offered up to my age group. But soon afterward a definitive change took hold, and that change was this: I started seeing all the best picture winners. Not just seeing them, but seeing them within a year or two of their release, or more likely, within a month or two. Rain Man was the first and then it went on from there. So not only was The Last Emperor the final best picture winner I hadn't seen, but it has always been the final picture winner I hadn't seen. Even things like Driving Miss Daisy were neglected by me for no more than a year or two -- I didn't have to finally watch it in 2007 or something like that. And by the beginning of the 1990s, Oscar fever had such a hold on me that it was unlikely I even missed any of the nominees for very long. In fact, there are only eight movies that have even been nominated for best picture since 1990 that I haven't seen, and no more than one in any given year.

Even at that time there seemed something mythic about The Last Emperor, and it's fair to say that has only grown over the years. I think it remains the only best picture winner to have won every award for which it was nominated, though I'd have to check on that. But at the time, in March of 1988, that impressed me to no end. It suggested that this movie must be of an unimaginably high level of quality, and it became daunting in that respect. Was I ever really ready to see a movie that was so great?

The length surely had something to do with me not seeing it before now as well. This is one of the first movies I remember seeing the runtime and actually registering how long that was. "165 minutes? That's like two hours and 45 minutes!" So not only was it grand, not only was it epic, not only was it really good, but you'd also have to really settle in for the long haul if you ever wanted to watch it.

To add to that, I imagined the subject matter being impenetrable. It was probably one of the first movies on my radar that wasn't set in America, or at least in an English-speaking country. So it seemed exotic, unlikely to speak to me in a way I could fully comprehend. I didn't know at the time -- and in fact, didn't know until I watched it this week -- that the movie was actually filmed in English.

So all this baggage was still with me when I was scheduling a time to sit down with The Last Emperor. I had first planned to watch it on Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon during my younger son's nap. But since he was waking up around 5 a.m. those days -- an annoying habit he has yet to fully abandon, four days later -- I needed to spend his afternoon naps in my own state of slumber. Or at the very least, doing things that did not require the purportedly immense levels of concentration demanded by something like The Last Emperor.

I toyed with watching it in chunks, just to make sure I got it in before the end of April. But if it was great as I was led to believe, I didn't want to do it that disservice. I should also mention that I'm relatively fresh off seeing another Bertolucci film I loved, The Conformist, which made it seem all the more important to give this one its just due.

Ultimately I lucked into a perfect scenario. My wife was going out on Thursday night and wouldn't be home until late. So even once she got home, if I weren't finished, there would be no pressure to watch something else with her. If I started it with my dinner, I could be done before 11, even with expected breaks. Of course, as it turned out, it was an especially rough day characterized by a rain storm that almost prevented me from picking up my kids on time, and their behavior after getting home ranged from moaning to whining to crying. So even with my best laid plans, I ended up having three glasses of wine with dinner and threatening not to complete the movie in one sitting anyway.

But I did finish it before midnight. And was indeed glad that I'd not only seen it all at once, but at night, where it deserves to be seen, on the biggest screen available in my house. Of course, now that I've expended so many words on preamble, I'll probably feel compelled to race through the qualitative portion of this post, just so I don't lose you. Oh well.

First and foremost I was glad to see how easy it was to follow. So, strike that impenetrability fear off the list. The Last Emperor manages the nimble feat of giving us plenty of exposition without making it feel like that's what it's doing. The screenplay is structured very helpfully in that regard, starting with the 1950 imprisonment of Puyi (played by John Lone as an adult) and then flashing back into his childhood at different ages as it checks back in regularly with 1950. It's always easy to tell where the story is going, I guess because this is a pretty standard biopic structure. And the story is a particularly interesting one, as it shows the clash between the traditional method of bequeathing leadership from generation to generation that had characterized China for thousands of years, and its 20th century transformation into a republic. It reminded me a bit of Downtown Abbey in that regard, and takes place at about the same time. The old ways were dying all across the world.

In terms of themes, The Last Emperor profoundly explores the paradox that a figure as apparently all-powerful as an emperor ultimately has little say about his own freedom and agency. Early in the film, someone tells Puyi he can do anything he wants. At the time, he indulges that freedom by splashing water in the faces of various servants, who must only laugh and accept this mild abuse. But it becomes clear over the course of the movie that his power is basically an illusion. He's really imprisoned inside his responsibility and his status as a figure of worship to his people. Part of this is a function of the age at which he gains the increasingly meaningless title of emperor, which is just three years old. He really does need adults to tell him what he really can and can't do. But this mentality toward him exists on into his adulthood. He is always being protected from himself. He has no real freedom, as for many years he isn't even allowed to leave the Forbidden City. (Which is actually where the movie was filmed, the first Western film allowed to do so.) We see this idea of a privileged monarch trying to escape the narrow constraints of his/her imprisonment in numerous other films, and it's conveyed powerfully here.

We can't go much longer without talking about the sumptuous set design. I suspect it did not have quite the impact on me as it might have had on a 1987 audience, as we have since been privy to numerous sweeping Hong Kong epics that have given us a sense of the grandeur of Chinese pageantry. I don't think audiences had that familiarity back then, so this must indeed have seemed like an odyssey of color and spectacle. DP Vittorio Storaro has a really keen sense of that color, giving the scenes set between 1910 and 1930 breathtaking blasts of color, while contrasting them with the drab grays and greens of the 1950s, when Communism was getting its foothold. It's easy to tell the difference in time periods by the age of the actors and their circumstances, of course, but the color scheme also smart delineates things.

I wondered whether the performances would be much good. Another thing I had also always known about The Last Emperor was that its Oscar sweep did not include any acting awards, since none of the actors were nominated. It would be easy to suggest that the acting is one of the least important aspects of this production, but Lone and others (particularly Joan Chen) indeed do quite good work. I can see why their work wouldn't have risen to the level of being nominated, but I also wonder if it reflects a bias against Asian actors by the Academy. They didn't give Peter O'Toole a best supporting actor nomination either, though. He didn't really deserve one, but at least there's no Sylvester Stallone in Creed thing going on here.

Regarding the ethnicity of the actors and the language chosen to tell this story, I was just a little distracted by the whole thing being in English, even though that was a very common convention at the time, especially in movies with awards ambitions. We live in a time now where something like the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel gets heavily criticized for being filmed in English, so that mentality couldn't help be in my thoughts a little bit.  But given my circumstances (wine), I was happy enough not to read subtitles.

Overall I was surprised how well the narrative moved along and how little it felt like a full 165 minutes. (Though I'm glad I didn't tackle the director's cut, which is an hour longer and was available on a second disc in my library rental.) I was really into it, and only the chemical influences of my wine forced me to take a quick nap or two near the end. But they were only quick naps and as I said, I finished before midnight, really touched by this story and where it concludes. I don't think it's actually the same level of achievement by Bertolucci as The Conformist -- probably no true cinephile would argue that -- but neither is it the totally Oscar-approved, sanitized version of a great filmmaker's vision. It's somewhere in between, and undeniably approaching the level of a masterpiece.

The Last Emperor was also fortuitously timed in that without rearranging my viewing schedule very much -- I may have foregone watching something on Wednesday night, but nothing more than that -- I was able to schedule it as the 4,500th movie I've ever seen. Seems an appropriate epic way to honor the occasion of seeing my final best picture winner.

Okay! That series is over, and now I can focus only on the current year's monthly series, No Audio Audient.

But I do have one more piece of business related to Audient Auscars. Join me in May as I wrap up the series with a complete ranking of all 89 best picture winners, completed with the aid of my Flickchart. This is a list I've been waiting my whole list-making career to compile, so I'm pretty excited about it.

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